Said no dog. Ever.
This is how dogs more likely consider the possibility of being overweight:
Most owners are aware that it is our responsibility to keep our dogs at a healthy body weight and in good condition. We all know this, right?
Perhaps not. A few statistics:
- Obesity continues to be the number one nutritional problem in pet dogs in the United States.
- According to the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), veterinarians classified 53 percent of their canine patients as either overweight or obese.
- In the same survey, only 22 percent of the owners identified their dog as being overweight.
- APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward refers to this cognitive disconnect as the “fat pet gap”. He suggests that American dog owners’ perceptions of what is normal in their dogs has been gradually distorted, leading to the perception that an overweight body type is normal.
Why the Disconnect? A common theory used to explain the mismatch between what owners perceive and what their dog actually looks like is that owners simply have not been taught how to recognize a fat dog and lack the knowledge to differentiate between a dog who is at ideal weight versus one who is slightly (or more) overweight. In an attempt to counteract this problem, pet food companies created Body Condition Scores. These are standardized five to 9-point visual scales designed to help owners and veterinarians correctly assess a dog’s body condition. Here are two examples:
Problem solved? These scales have been around for more than 15 years. Yet, our dogs are still fat. Perhaps the scales are not being used? Are they difficult to understand? Recently a group of researchers asked the question: “If we give dog owners a BCS tool, show them how to use it, and then ask them to evaluate their own dog using the tool, will their assessments improve?” Their hypothesis was optimistic. They believed this would do the trick.
The Study: This was a pre-test/post-test study design and included a group of 110 owners and their dogs (1). In the pre-test portion of the study, the owner was asked to assess their dog’s body condition. No guidance was provided and the owner was required to select the word that best described their dog from a set of five terms; very thin, thin, ideal weight, overweight, or markedly obese. Following this assessment, the owner was provided with a five-point BCS chart that used the same five descriptors along with visual silhouettes and descriptions. They were given instructions of how to use the chart and were then asked to assess their dog a second time. The investigating veterinarian also assessed the dog using the BCS chart and physical examination.
Results: Several interesting (and surprising) results were reported:
- Prior to using the BCS chart, 2/3 of the owners (66 %) incorrectly assessed their dog’s body condition. The majority underestimated body condition, believing their overweight dog to be at or near his or her ideal weight. These results are consistent with those reported by other researchers and with the APOP survey.
- Following training with the BCS tool, these misperceptions persisted, showing virtually no change; 65 % were incorrect and only 15 % of owners changed their original score (some up/some down, and some from correct to incorrect!). The majority of owners continued to see their plump dog as being at his or her optimal weight.
- Here is where things get really weird.
- When queried, the majority of owners (77 %) stated that they believed that using the BCS chart had significantly improved their ability to estimate their dog’s body condition (huh?). This statement was made despite the fact that only 17 owners changed their scores after they learned to use the chart.
- And, those who believed the chart had helped them fared no better in post-test success than the those who believed that the chart did not help them.
Take Away for Dog Folks: This study confirms what several other researchers have reported and what the APOP statistics tell us; dog owners tend to underestimate their dog’s weight and body condition, seeing a dog who is overweight as ideal. It also goes an important step further. Even when owners are shown how to identify an overweight dog, they are literally blind to seeing the evidence in their own dog. We still get it wrong. Why is this happening? There are a few possible reasons:
- Fido is not fat; he just has big bones: Resistance to seeing one’s own dog as overweight may be a form of denial, similar to the well-documented misperception that many parents have regarding their child’s weight. Because being overweight is viewed negatively by others, is associated with well-known health risks, and may be perceived as reflecting badly upon a dog owner’s ability to care properly for their dog, denial may be quite an attractive alternative to the truth.
- Confirmation bias: In this pre-test/post-test situation, people may have resisted changing their scores following training simply because, well, people hate to be proven wrong. If an owner had preconceived beliefs about his dog’s weight and initially assigned a moderate score, he might subsequently (and unconsciously) use the BCS chart to confirm that belief, however misguided it was.
- Food is love: There are data from other studies showing that a substantial number of owners admit that they are unwilling to deny food to their dog even when they know the dog is overweight because they see feeding as an important outlet for love and nurturing (2). Similarly, owners tend to resist changing their feeding habits with their dogs even when aware of the adverse health effects of being overweight (3).
Soap Box Time: The results of this study are not encouraging and suggest that we have a long way to go regarding our ability to prevent and reduce overweight conditions in dogs. If you are a trainer, doggy day care owner, groomer, veterinarian, veterinary technician, or other pet professional who works daily with dog owners and their dogs, perhaps it is time for a little “tough love”. Post a BCS chart in your facility, have a weight scale handy, and don’t be afraid to use them. Call the fat dogs fat…….nicely of course and with great respect for their owners (the dogs won’t care; they will be proud). Help owners to face reality. Provide guidelines to help dogs to trim down, encourage exercise for both the dog’s body and mind, and help people to understand that keeping a dog trim is one of the best ways that we can support their health and demonstrate our love.
- Eastland-Jones RC, German AJ, Holden SL, Biourge V, Pickavance LC. Owner misperception of canine body condition persists despite use of a body condition score chart. Journal of Nutritional Science 2014; 3:e45;1-5.
- Kienzle E, Bergler R, Mandernach A. A comparison of the feeding behavior and the human-animal relationship in owners of normal and obese dogs. Journal of Nutrition 1998; 128:2779S-2782S.
- Bland IM, Guthrie-Jones A, Taylor RD. Dog obesity: Owner attitudes and behavior. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 2009; 92:333-340.
25 thoughts on ““Do you think I look fat in this collar?””
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Great article! I really find it unbelievable when I hear a dog owner say it’s cute that their dog is fat. It’s cruel and ignorant.
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As nothing more than the average dog owner, who is always reading and trying to be a better dog owner, i find this is a constant concern of mine. I have seen the Purina chart in my vet’s office and I find it IS difficult to compare my dogs to the example. I have a 1 year old male catahoula, who seems to be still growing. He goes from – what i think looks healthy – to being able to count, not only his ribs, but his vertebrae. I feed two different dog foods; one high in carbs, one no carbs and adjust the mix based on how he looks “this week.” My 2 year old female catahoula/basenji mix mostly fits the description of “ideal” except that she has a “roll” (by the human definition) up around her shoulders. When I reduce her food and/or increase her exercise, i can more clearly see her ribs – which then border on the “too thin” definition, but the “roll” never seems to get smaller. My vet assures me that both my dogs are in great shape – but i can’t very well take them in every week and ask “How ’bout now?”
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Given humans have such a distorted view of thier own overweightness – eg. I’m just a bit overweight (actually you are obese, the new normal starts at overweight unfortunately) I’m not surprised its flowing over into pet weight. I was told the three measures many years ago for assessing dog condition and have found them very usefull over the years. Its pretty easy to see whan you can’t see a waist, a tucked up tummy or feel ribs relatively easily. And i reckon its easier to control a dogs weight than your own because you are in control of what they get – they generally can’t sneak off to the fridge at will. I spose you just have to keep getting the message out there.
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Important article, thanks for writing it!
I think a lot of people go by the suggested amount on the dog food bags, which in my opinion is often more than most dogs need.
I am constantly (politely) coaching people to use their eyes and hands to really assess whether their dog is at a healthy weight, and let them know that lean dogs tend to live longer and have fewer health and orthopedic problems. I send out this video fairly frequently, especially if they’re interested in dog sports. http://youtu.be/cm2EXtaoNQQ
(I can’t see your fat Labs picture on my iPhone either.)
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Hi Trish, Great point. We hear this often from our training clients as well. They often think that they “have” to feed what the bag says and are reluctant to reduce the volume that they are feeding. Also – Thanks SO much for sharing the Dr. Julie video – excellent!! We use the same three measures (rib palpation, tummy tuck, top profile) when teaching our students to evaluate their dog’s body condition. (And yet, we too continue to see overweight dogs……). Thanks for sharing this – I will recommend it often! Best, Linda
I always ask my vet to comment on my dogs’ weights — because I know I can fudge my own interpretation. Eg., my old girl (Labrador) has had four large litters and suffers from saggy bags. She has a thick coat and undercoat and a “well sprung ribcage” (to quote the breed standard). You can feel her ribs, and her profile from the top shows a significant indent at the waistline . . . though she’s broader than the standard dog picture.
Her side view is another story. My vets have always told me she’s fine. But she weighs almost 10 pounds more than her daughter (5 years younger) and I still have a lingering feeling she’s too heavy.
Bottom line is a question. Are vets any better at reading the diagram than non-professionals? Or do vets get so tired of people’s resistance to being told their dog is fat that they simply stop trying?
Hi Jen – Great question. There is just one study that I know of that compared trained versus untrained evaluators’ accuracy at assessing body condition, and it was in cats not dogs (but did use a BCS scale). It did show that the trained evaluator was a bit more accurate, than untrained. But, it was comparing people who were evaluating others’ dogs; that is of course different from comparing a trained assessor to an owner. I will post the reference below for you.
Also, I agree that it must be very frustrating for veterinarians to have to continually be the “bearer of bad news” for their clients regarding their dog’s body condition and that over time, some vets may just give up or stop mentioning it simply to avoid ostracizing the owner. I think it is a very difficult situation because ultimately, the owner is the one who has to help the dog to lose weight and if they will not or cannot see that their pet needs to lose weight, there is nothing that the veterinarian (or trainer, or dog day care owner) can do. Just another example of how completely we are in control of our dog’s health and well-being and happiness. Thanks for reading and for posting – Linda
Here is the reference:
Shoveller AK, DiGennaro J, Lanman C, Spangler D. Trained vs untrained
evaluator assessment of body condition score as a predictor of percent body fat
in adult cats. J Feline Med Surg. 2014 Dec;16(12):957-65.
OK, so I’m a behavioral scientist and I know all the human judgment errors (availability, anchor & adjustment, representation error, etc.). But I also don’t think the charts are very good. Let me explain.
Personally, I believe most of my dogs (3 out of 5) are overweight. But, if I look at the first chart in particular (the one that I have always seen in my vet’s office), all of my “overweight” dogs have the shape of the “IDEAL” dog. I think there’s more than just the dog shape to suggest being overweight.
I think my dogs are overweight. My vet things they are overweight. BUT, they still have “concave” waists (as it were). NONE is bulbing outward from the belly. But I notice that they don’t move around as well as they should, and I can “pinch” and get fat.
Two of my dogs are German Shepherds (the thin ones of the bunch), and the vet almost always pushes having an UNDERWEIGHT profile. Why? Because they are so inclined to have hip/joint problems. The ONLY 2 dogs that I would say are NOT overweight are my 2 GSDs who we keep RAIL THIN on purpose.
The BCS chart is better in some respects, but I know LOTS of people in rescue/shelters who would call the “IDEAL” profile to be underweight if not downright emaciated. (Seriously — compare to those charts used by shelters for cruelty/neglect determinations.)
One final note: I had a GSD who got blastomycosis and went from 95 lbs to 60 lbs. He nearly died due to weight loss, and it was all we could do to get him to eat and keep him on his (very expensive) meds for a year and a half. I don’t want to justify having fat dogs, but I don’t think I would go so far as to aspire for my dogs to be as thin as a 4 on the BCS. One of my current GSDs is that thin, but the other is probably a 5.
Then there’s the one we call our “Little Kielbasa.” Yes, she’s shaped like a sausage, but she still has a slight waist. We’ve cut back on her food, but our biggest challenge is her aging metabolism, lack of exercise (particularly with this brutal frigid weather), and her constant scavenging for food (she LOVES to eat — whether field mice or what we put in her bowl).
So. there it is.
Hi “Tutzauerc” – Thanks for sharing. My understanding is that BCS tools are not intended to be a simple comparison of the graphic profile (i.e. concave waist) to the dog. All of these also include descriptions of body type plus palpation (handling) assessments. Over the years, BCS scales have been validated in several research studies with dogs (and cats) and have been found to be generally reliable measures of overweight conditions, with most finding that BCS correlates better with percent body fat than with weight. However, that said, a recent study (the Jeusette study, see below) did find that the significant differences that we see in body types in dogs does lead to lower reliability of BCS scores, leading to the recommendation of developing different scales for different body types. (I am not sure if anyone has done this yet). There is also a 2014 study showing that the development of a Body Fat Index scoring system is superior to the 5-point BCS system (see Witzel study below).
With time, we may certainly see a BFI system replacing the standard BCS charts that we see today. Regardless, most nutritionists, veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists always recommend that BCS (or any other measure of body composition) should be used in conjunction with other measures of health and body condition such as regular weight measurement and regular health checks to assess a dog’s condition and fitness. The point of the essay in the blog was simply to summarize a study that compared owner perceptions before and after BCS training and how their evaluations of their dog’s weight reflected accuracy, as measured by a trained researcher/veterinarian. And to that end, the study does show that 1. owners tend to be inaccurate and tilt towards underestimating their dogs body condition. and 2. Even when provided with additional education to use a validated tool (not saying it is the best tool, but it is a validated method), their estimates did not improve.
Best, Linda Case
Here are a few of the published validation studies, FYI (some are in cats):
Burkholder WJ. Use of body condition scores in clinical assessment of the provision of optimal nutrition. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000; 217:650-653.
Bjornvad CR, Nielsen DH, Armstrong PJ, et al. Evaluation of a nine-point body condition scoring system in physically inactive pet cats. Am J Vet Res 2011; 72:433-437.
German AJ, Holden SL, Moxham GL, et al. A simple, reliable tool for owners to assess the body condition of their dog or cat. J Nutr 2006; 136:2031S-2022S.
Jeusette, D. Greco, F. Aquino, J. Detilleux, M. Peterson, V. Romano, C. Torre, Effect of breed on body composition and comparison between various methods to estimate body composition in dogs, Research in Veterinary Science, Volume 88, Issue 2, April 2010, Pages 227-232,
Dianne I. Mawby, Joseph W. Bartges, Andre d’Avignon, Dorothy P. Laflamme, Tamberlyn D. Moyers, and Tamorah Cottrell (2004) Comparison of Various Methods for Estimating Body Fat in Dogs. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association: March/April 2004, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 109-114.
Witzel AL, Kirk CA, Henry GA, Toll PW, Brejda JJ, Paetau-Robinson I. Use of a
novel morphometric method and body fat index system for estimation of body
composition in overweight and obese dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Jun
I have toy dogs – small dogs with fluffy coats. I had already seen in other dogs how easily the extra ounces can turn to extra pounds, and was determined not to let it happen to mine. Frankly, I have never found the body condition charts very helpful – it is far too easy to decide that slight curve is a nice tuck, or to press just a little more firmly to feel the ribs (I am well practiced in ignoring my own bulges, after all!). Far more useful are regular weighing, a good understanding of exactly how many calories my dogs need and how many their meals provide, and resolving to show love with attention, long walks and silly games rather than food. All are more time consuming than simply tipping kibble into a bowl and handing out chews on demand, but my dogs are now 6, and never more than a few percentage points off their ideal weight. And all the exercise is having a beneficial effect on my bulges, too!
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Hi Frances – Beautifully stated. Love this. Especially this part “resolving to show love with attention, long walks and silly games rather than food”. Thanks so much for sharing – you made my day! Linda
Until people can get their own weight under control, it is difficult to see that much will change re pets. If people cannot get away from a fast food and inactive lifestyle, then I suspect that poor “Fido” is going to continue receiving excessive treats, and his/her exercise be limited to a quick trip outside to relieve itself. Very sad statement of our culture.
Hi Colin, Yes, our own weight and inactive lifestyles are certainly a factor, but probably not the singular explanation. I agree that feeding dogs has seemed to replace other forms of interacting with them (and sadly may even be used as a way to keep a dog from pestering for attention, wanting more exercise, looking for mental stimulation, etc.). This is a sad state for the dogs who are affected and really can be viewed as a form of neglect. IMHO, it is also very sad for the owners who are missing out on a whole lot of great experiences with their dogs. Remember though, that there are also many, many owners who spend lots of great quality time with their dogs, train them, play with them, walk them, enjoy outings and dog sports with them, and regularly exercise them. Things are not completely dire in the dog world. 🙂 Thanks for reading – Linda
Agreed- we adopted a working bred dog to train as a detection K9, and the former owners had managed to turn her into a sausage in an effort to control her immense drive. They tried to turn a racecar into a minivan, and it worked to a certain extent! I have known other people who knowingly over feed a dog because ‘it’s hyper’ or ‘it won’t stop wanting to play’. It’s depressing…
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Hi Kate – Love that metaphor “tried to turn a racecar into a minivan”……may borrow that one from you! 🙂 Agree also that seeing food used as a pacifier is very depressing. On the positive side – your girl ended up in the right home for her and you ended up with an amazing K9 Detection dog! (I just recently started training my own dogs in K9 Nose Work, and they LOVE it! Me too! We are planning on offering an introductory class at our school soon as I think many dogs would love this type of training). Thanks for reading and contributing! Linda
I wonder what is the influence of the stereotypical abused and neglected dog being depicted as emaciated ? When a dog’s ribs showing becomes a sign of neglect, having them hidden becomes a sign of a caring owner, and having then buried in fat becomes a sign of an owner who cares more.
There’s probably a paper in this somewhere.
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Hi Peter – Interesting theory. I have not seen any papers that address this concept, but will certainly keep my eyes open! Thanks for reading! Linda
I think also that lots of folks like having a “big” dog. I have Labs and always have people telling me about their Labs who weigh 100+ lbs. And they’re proud of it. And then there is the influence of the AKC. Show Labs, in particular, are very much overweight.
Hi RWR – I so agree! A training friend and I used to comment (and chuckle) about the apparent weight competition that some people seem to be in about their dogs (especially with Labs for some reason – why IS that?). They would each brag about the dogs weight, with one person “upping” the next. I am pretty certain several boasted above the 150 lb range…….goofy, goofy behavior.
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I have a hunch about Labradors. I think, back in the days when they were used to pull fish out of the Bay of Fundy and had to winter over on the cold rocky shores of Newfoundland, blubber was an asset. As with marine mammals, a layer of fat gives protection from cold water and helps to survive the hungry times of winter. Hence natural selection favored the pups who packed it on.
This is not to say that fat is ok on Labs. The classic study on the consequences of overfeeding (actually on the benefits of underfeeding) was done on Labradors, and the outcomes were dramatic.
Kealey et al, 2002, Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002 May 1;220(9):1315-20 . . . I’m sure LInda P. Case has cited this many times
Just fyi – the picture of the “two fat labs” is not appearing. I tried another browser and it still was not there.
Great post – I constantly tell people their dogs are fat and about the consequences. For most of them it is the problem of “food is love”. It’s like talking to a brick wall.
Hi Gayle – I am not sure why this was happening and have not had trouble on this end. If the problem persists for you, let me know and I will look into it. Thanks for reading – and Keep on trying to chip away at that brick wall – you may make more of a difference for dogs than you realize! Linda